Axel-In-Charge: New X-Men Editorial Era, Garth Ennis' Marvel Return
Truth #2 (2003), page 12 panels 1-4. Kyle Baker.
When you boil it down to the core, action comics is basically an artist manipulating a set of stock poses. The writing can invent different reasons for conflict to come about and layer significance into it as it’s happening. Different page construction tools — both layout and in-panel composition — control the ebb and flow of what we’re reading, making each impact feel a little different and each action taken pop out as unique. Even if we’ve all read thousands of panels in which someone gets punched, each one is the only one that shows it happening a certain way. Finally, the stylism a cartoonist blankets their drawing with is as much a part of any piece of comics as the content — even if an artist copies another’s page panel for panel, the mannerisms that are an unavoidable byproduct of the act of drawing ensures that the result will be something significantly different.
What underlies all this, what makes all action comics drawing part of the same practice, is what’s being drawn, the human figure in motion, interacting with other figures. Though there are a million ways to draw a punch, the gesture itself is more or less the same every time, a single fundamental truth that’s been communicated in countless different voices. No matter how they’re framed, how they’re rendered, and what the circumstance or setting of their existence is, there are a few poses that recur again and again in action comics, coding for the entire genre in miniature. Those poses a playbook that was written in large part by a very few artists — Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, Frank Miller, but most especially Jack Kirby — and has remained almost completely unchanged over the better part of a century.
Kyle Baker’s always been an oddball in the community of action artists — utilizing computer graphics a solid decade before everyone else caught on, inking and coloring his own drawings rather handing them off to sidemen, and pulling inspiration from far beyond the usual sources, creating work that calls back to everything from vintage arcade game graphics to Looney Tunes. When Baker does fight scenes, though, his classicism come out to play. Most action cartoonists use drawing style as a distraction, whether consciously or not — whether it’s the intricacy of the detail or the quality of the marks, the vast majority of comics art that shows fighting provides readers with information to focus on that keeps them from recognizing the almost ritualistic recurrence of a few Kirbyist figure arrangements. Baker seems to relish that very sameness: when the action starts his drawing strips itself down, as if in an attempt to reduce itself to pure information.
In the sequence above, Baker seems to be trying to get as far out of the way of his content as possible, stripping his layout back to a simple grid, shooting the figures full-body from straight on, and capturing their gestures and interactions in broad strokes, with plenty happening between shots (though never too much for the reader to reconstruct easily in their head). The background drops out completely, and even the color backdropping the drawings is as minimal as it gets, indicating only a horizon line. The poses are pure Kirby, but the line used (sparingly) is a thick, dashed scrawl, one that communicates confidence and speed more than any elegance or grace. These are rough drawings, not pretty ones, as minimal as they can get while still retaining the hyperbole of the best action sequences. Baker relies on his audience’s familiarity with this content to get his point across; it isn’t necessary to do a close reading of his scribbly clusters of lines when we’ve seen what he’s showing us countless times before. It’s a form that follows function, loose and propulsive, the better to sell the hard-hitting material it’s presenting readers with. There’s no attempt being made here at beauty, only a communication as direct as possible — and, fittingly enough, that’s where the beauty of this work is to be found.